Northampton youths' art seen as envoy of goodwill

Mural exchange creates dialogue between innocents

Hampshire Gazette
Friday, January 9, 2009

NORTHAMPTON - Can art make a difference in a world fraught with religious and political conflict? Local organizers of a collaborative art exchange believe it has the potential to cut through dehumanizing stereotypes and show people to one another as they really are.

Their avenue is a set of murals, painted by children of one country and sent to children of another.

One, painted by Iraqi refugee children in Jordan, was recently honored as a finalist in an international competition. Another, to be created this weekend by young local artists, may find its way to the side of a pyramid.

As an offshoot of Northampton resident Claudia Lefko's Iraqi Children's Art Exchange, the project is a kind of rhetoric-free dialogue between innocents - on a grand scale.

"For me, it's not about understanding who other people are, it's who we are," said Lefko. "The work is about seeing people on both sides."

This weekend, Iraqi artist Thamer Dawood will join local artists Lydia Nettler, Harriet Diamond and Bob Hepner at the Northampton Center for the Arts, as 15 students ages 12 to 18 work on a mural titled "How Will They Know Us?"

The painting begins today at 4 p.m. and continues through the weekend. Families are invited to stop by and watch the creation unfold Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will be encouraged to add comments or drawings of their own. As she has done many times, Lefko will deliver these drawings to Jordan.

The finished mural will be exhibited, alongside murals painted by Iraqi refugees living in Troy, N.Y., at an opening reception Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, and will hang in the West Gallery through the end of the month.

Hepner, a Smith College Campus School art teacher who has two daughters working on the mural, said the students completed preliminary sketches last weekend, depicting such icons as Northampton's City Hall and the Pedal People.

"It also has two figures with arms around each other, reading from a book," said Hepner. "It shows how highly valued literacy is in this area." All the ideas were the result of the students' own brainstorming sessions.

Meanwhile, a 12-by-5-foot canvas mural painted by Iraqi refugee children in Jordan as part of the Iraqi Children's Art Exchange was honored as one of four finalists for the Art Venture Freedom to Create Prize in London. Working under the guidance of Dawood, Iraqi painters, ages 6 to 17, completed the work at the Dar Al Anda Gallery.

The colorful mural celebrates significant aspects of Iraqi history, culture and landscape, including the gates of Babylon, the Samara mosque, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The mural has a nostalgic feel to it, a yearning, perhaps, to return to a homeland some of the artists may barely remember. The mural is currently on display at the Campus School. Hepner said that his sixth-grade art students were blown away by the mural as they sat before it Monday morning.

"Here are these kids that have such wrenching experiences and yet, the mural is very positive and happy," said Hepner. "Despite what they've been through, there's no death, suffering or war."

The mural was one of four works selected on the short list for the youth prize from the 900 entries that poured in from 80 countries. Though the ICAE mural did not win the prize, its image was projected onto a large screen during awards ceremonies in London Nov. 26.

"This is Northampton going on the map with an international project," said Lefko, who founded the children's art exchange project.

The young artists didn't know it had been entered, and were proud to hear that their work was on Art Venture's short list. Lefko personally gave them the news in Amman in November. But some questioned the idea of creating artwork in the face of insurmountable anguish. Lefko related a conversation she had with one of the painters, a 15-year-old refugee named Mahmoud, who couldn't understand how painting pictures could alleviate the struggle his family was made to endure. "I need money for school," he said, "and I have three sisters who also need money for school fees. I don't see how this will help us."

But when the boy learned that the contest came with a $25,000 prize, he began to see possibilities with self-expression.

"Money is what they need - it's not just symbolic," said Lefko. "That child might emerge to go to some international conference - you have to believe that it has some significance."

Lefko has made several trips to Iraq since founding the Iraqi Children's Art Exchange in 2000. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Lefko and others would bring drawings done by Valley children to hospitalized children in Baghdad, then return to Northampton armed with drawings done by Iraqis. Since 2006, Lefko's project has centered its work in Amman, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled to escape the ongoing violence in their country. Human Rights First puts the number of Iraqi refugees in Jordan to between 700,000 and a million. Lefko's group has established a support network in Amman that includes outreach workers, artists and gallery owners.

In a prime example of international collaboration, American students in California painted half of a mural in July, and Lefko picked it up before her November trip.

"I schlepped it to Jordan, where kids there finished it, an actual collaboration," said Lefko.

UNICEF has identified Iraq as having the highest under-5 mortality rate of any country in the world and Lefko said she realizes that participation in the project carries danger.

"It's a risk for Iraqis to participate in these projects," said Lefko. "Kids are recruited as terrorists - they don't want them to be nonviolent."

The ultimate destination for many of these murals will be Egypt, as part of the Art Miles Project, an international effort in support of UNESCO's "Decade of Peace and Nonviolence Among Children of the World." In September 2010, 12 miles of murals from over 100 countries will be digitized and made into a skin to cover a framed structure as the "4th Pyramid," near the site of the great pyramids of Giza.

"It's all about focusing the world's attention on what kids have to say," said Lefko. "They believe that they can rescue themselves, that they can be active on their own behalf."